Dissecting the Dad Bod
What science says about the attractiveness of male bodies
Posted May 12, 2015
You might have seen a recent series of blog posts extolling the virtues of the ‘dad bod’, a body type in males which is somewhere between complete couch potato and gym junkie. As well as catching some flak for flying in the face of the harsh judgement that women frequently face based on body shape, numerous studies have demonstrated that the dad body isn’t all that attractive to women in the first place.
Let me preface this article with the understanding that what we find attractive varies enormously between individuals, and by no means does what I write apply to everybody. That said, a great deal of what we find attractive is shaped by our evolution – enormous pressures have been placed on our ancestors to select the optimal mate to increase both the reproductive and survival advantage of offspring. One such indicator of mate quality in males is the attractiveness of their physique (Cronin, 1991; Shackelford et al., 2000; Singh, 1995). An attractive male body may indicate greater fitness as a result of healthy development and also signals physical competency.
Considerable research has been conducted in investigating female body attractiveness, but the same scrutiny has been applied far less frequently to male physicality. That said some notable studies have turned their gaze to female perceptions of male body attractiveness and they point far away from the Seth Rogen’s and other dad bodies of the world.
Numerous studies have shown that far from preferring chubby men, females demonstrate a preference for lean bodies. Body fat, as measured by body mass index (BMI), has been an important feature across multiple studies of female preference (Fan, Dai, Liu, & Wu, 2005; Hönekopp, Rudolph, Beier, Liebert, & Müller, 2007; Maisey, Vale, Cornelissen, & Tovée, 1999). This is likely due to the importance of body fat in predicting health as BMI is strongly related to mortality (Prospective Studies Collaboration, 2009).
Closely linked to body fat is the relationship between body shape and attractiveness. For males, females tend to prefer a V-shaped torso (think Superman but less extreme). This figure is the result of a waist that is narrower than the shoulders and chest, and is linked to perceptions of upper body strength (Frederick & Haselton, 2007; Hönekopp et al., 2007; Maisey et al., 1999; Sell et al., 2009). One study found that the ratio between chest and waist width accounted for as much as 56% of the attractiveness of various body images (Maisey et al., 1999). As body fat increases, the waist expands and becomes broader than the hips and chest, significantly reducing attractiveness when rated by females (Fan et al., 2005). This is bad news for dad bodies. The schlubby body shape Leo Di Caprio proudly flaunts on the beach is distinctly unathletic, and when rated by a female is found to be significantly less attractive. Of course, Leo is a successful multi-millionaire movie star with plenty of other means for attracting super model girlfriends.
It’s important to note that studies above are limited in that the female participants have to choose from a range of pre-selected bodies, and so their choices may not reflect what they truly desire. Enter a recent study in PLoS One (Crossley, Cornelissen, & Tovée, 2012). This study allowed participants to create their own ideal partner body using scalable 3D images. When given the opportunity to mould their ideal male body, females demonstrated the general trend found in previous forced-choice studies. The participants tended to generate men with an average BMI, with narrow hips and a broad chest (the V-shaped torso mentioned previously). Interestingly, males designing what they thought would be the ideal male body for females created a remarkably similar figure. This further extends on the consistent trend for females to find indices of muscularity (such as ratio of broad chest to a narrow waist) attractive (Frederick & Haselton, 2007; Hönekopp et al., 2007; Maisey et al., 1999; Sell et al., 2009).
These lab-studies are important for determining the direction of preferences for certain traits, but they can’t tell us much about actual choice. The key theme of the ‘dad bod’ trend seems to be that the cushy body is an indicator of a relaxed personality, but it’s important to recognize that, even though the two might be correlated, they aren’t mutually exclusive. All said and done, it's not the body aspect of the dad body that females are attracted to.
Crossley, K. L., Cornelissen, P. L., & Tovée, M. J. (2012). What Is an attractive Bbdy? Using an interactive 3D program to create the ideal body for you and your partner. PloS one, 7(11), e50601. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050601
Fan, J., Dai, W., Liu, F., & Wu, J. (2005). Visual perception of male body attractiveness. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1560), 219-226. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2922
Frederick, D. A., & Haselton, M. G. (2007). Why is muscularity sexy? Tests of the fitness indicator hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(8), 1167-1183. doi: 10.1177/0146167207303022
Hönekopp, J., Rudolph, U., Beier, L., Liebert, A., & Müller, C. (2007). Physical attractiveness of face and body as indicators of physical fitness in men. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(2), 106-111. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.09.001
Maisey, D. S., Vale, E. L. E., Cornelissen, P. L., & Tovée, M. J. (1999). Characteristics of male attractiveness for women. The Lancet, 353(9163), 1500-1500. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)00438-9
Prospective Studies Collaboration. (2009). Body-mass index and cause-specific mortality in 900 000 adults: collaborative analyses of 57 prospective studies. The Lancet, 373(9669), 1083-1096. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60318-4
Sell, A., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., Sznycer, D., von Rueden, C., & Gurven, M. (2009). Human adaptations for the visual assessment of strength and fighting ability from the body and face. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276(1656), 575-584. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1177
Shackelford, T. K., Weekes-Shackelford, V. A., LeBlanc, G. J., Bleske, A. L., Euler, H. A., & Hoier, S. (2000). Female coital orgasm and male attractiveness. Human Nature, 11(3), 299-306. doi: 10.1007/s12110-000-1015-1
Singh, D. (1995). Female judgment of male attractiveness and desirability for relationships: Role of Waist-to-Hip ratio and financial Status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(6), 1089. doi: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1999